Two images are drawn on a piece of paper. One is a basic stick figure of a Christmas tree, a single vertical line with branches sticking out. The other is a circle. Believe it or not, both are drawings of a tree.
Professor Boguslaw “Bob” Marek, who teaches English at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, explained the circle is what a blind student once drew for him when asked to draw a tree. When asked for her reasoning, Marek said, the student explained that when she approached a tree and put her arms around it, it was circular in shape.
This is just one of several gaps for blind learners conceptualizing the visual world that Marek works to bridge with tactile graphics teaching aids created through his organization, Hungry Fingers. He shared those resources and teaching techniques with educators and parents in Alaska this month, with workshops in Anchorage and one at Soldotna Prep School on Thursday.
“The problem of understanding drawings for blind children is that drawings use sighted conventions, which are very difficult to understand for blind people,” Marek said, demonstrating his tactile teaching tools in a classroom at the school Thursday. “Also, drawings are two-dimensional representations of objects which are three-dimensional.”
For example, Marek said that when he first drew a basic stick figure image of a table from the side — a line for the tabletop and two more vertical lines for the legs — his blind students were not able to recognize it as a drawing of a table, only as three lines. It was only when Marek let them hold a wooden model of a table and had them feel it from only the side that the students were able to understand what a table would look like from the side to a person viewing it from a distance, he said.
“If you like teaching, there’s no better student than a blind child,” Marek said. “They’re really motivated, interested — everything is fascinating because everything is new, and the language of blind children is something really mind-blowing. When you hear a question like, ‘So, what color is the wind?’ or ‘How can you see a big mountain through a small window?’ or ‘Does a stone look the way it feels?’ These questions you get from children, they show the gaps in their knowledge of the world. They have many gaps because they can’t see the world, so they’re trying desperately to fill these gaps.”
In the evolution of teaching the blind and visually impaired, the advent of technology has helped when it comes to teaching Braille, Marek said. But in society’s rush to utilize iPads and other technologies, tactile learning tools have been somewhat skipped, ignoring a useful technique in helping students understand how to think spatially, he said.
“I’d always been a boring academic in the department of English in Poland, and at some stage in my life I discovered that I wanted to do something more practical, not just do some abstract linguistics,” he said.
While in England, Marek said he saw a poster that had a picture of a blind girl on it holding a model of the Tower Bridge in London with a caption that read “Amy will never see the sights of London.”
“I thought, wait a minute, if Amy was born blind then her listening skills might be very good because she develops that, and memory and concentration,” Marek said. “And I thought of all these Polish children. They could use that for learning a foreign language because these three things are very useful for learning a language. And then the blind children, when they grow, they could be translators (or) interpreters instead of living on social benefits.”
This realization led to Marek’s development of a program to teach English to the blind in Poland, as well as program to train English teachers how to work with blind or visually impaired students.
The device that helps students make the connection of how objects translate into drawings is what Marek has called a transfograph. It and several other tactile graphics toys and tools are available for parents and teachers to purchase and can be seen on his website.
Since he began developing these tools more than 20 years ago, Marek said they have been picked up and adapted in different parts of the world to fit students there.
Marek has taught workshops from Samoa to the Himalayas of Nepal. He prefers to bring his work to places that present a challenge, he said. Marek was already in the United States taking part in a conference in Orlando, Florida, but wanted to extend his trip. Visiting Alaska has been a dream of his, he said.
“So I sent some offers … offering a free workshop on tactile graphics, whoever wants me and is prepared to give me a free bed and a bowl of rice, or a bag of chips, and Alaska was the first one to respond, so here I am,” Marek said.
Alaska presents its own unique challenges when it comes to teaching blind or visually impaired students, said Jordana Engebretsen, a teacher for visually impaired and blind students for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. In addition to the difficulties of getting affordable teaching resources to the state, the small population leads to an even smaller population of people who are visually impaired, which she said can be isolating.
“Blindness is a very, very low incidence disability,” she said.
Engebretsen, who came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 23, having lost her sight only two years earlier, has been teaching with the district for six years. Her goal is to build a culture of awareness within the peninsula community for her blind students and other visually impaired residents, she said.
“I want my kids to be able to go to Fred Meyer’s and do some shopping,” she said. “I want my kids to go to places, and sometimes they can’t because there’s not accessibility — there’s no people to help them.”
Engebretsen plans to host a gathering for blind children and their families from all over Alaska this November in Soldotna. She wants to organize activities for them that will help teach life skills like cooking and using technology, she said.
“That’s what our kids need. Our blind individuals need to know how to do things to be able to be functional, you know, to be able to be part of the society,” she said. “That’s why I am here and this group of … professionals, we are here to help our kids to be active members of the society, to be able to function.”
Engebretsen teaches students in Soldotna High School, River City Academy, Kenai Central High School and Soldotna Elementary, but there are also visually impaired students in Seward and Homer, she said.
She said she is excited to take several techniques she learned Thursday and apply them to students she knows will benefit or who are struggling with certain concepts.
Marek will travel to Homer and back to Anchorage before leaving the state and has more learning tools in the works which are waiting on funding, he said. As an educator working with blind children and adults, Marek said he constantly learns about new challenges or gaps they face in their understanding of the world.
“But you also learn one thing … the fact that we see does not mean that we know everything about the world,” Marek said. “There’s this other half of the world hidden from us because we take too many shortcuts, and we don’t notice the gentle of rustling of something — the wind — or there’s information that blind people notice which we ignore. So the world is much richer, I think, than we think.”